Arming Vessels to Combat Piracy

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A top Navy commander suggested that commercial vessels should arm themselves when traveling through pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast. Navy Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa and of NATO’s Allied Joint Task Force Command Naples, told Pentagon reporters that the scope of the piracy problem is too great to be policed by military vessels alone.

“We could put a World War II fleet of ships out there,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel off the Indian coast, “and we still wouldn’t be able to cover the whole ocean.”

On an average day, 30 to 40 ships comprising international maritime forces monitor pirate activity in the Somali basin and the western Indian Ocean, Fitzgerald said, adding that five to 10 of these ships at any given time are American vessels.

Another issue, the admiral said, is what to do with pirates who are captured. The international community, he explained, has not yet answered the question of how to bring to justice pirates captured at sea. This issue has come to the fore with the recent capture of five suspected pirates by the crew of the USS Nicholas in the Indian Ocean west of the Seychelles.

“Catch and release is not a very good option,” Fitzgerald said. “How do we deal with this? We've got to come to some kind of solution.”

Somali-based piracy, the admiral said, will not go away until a government in Mogadishu is stable enough to confront the problem within its borders.

“Right now, we’re trying to shoot the arrow instead of the archer,” Fitzgerald said. He acknowledged that the prospect of a stable Somali government is unlikely in the near future.

The admiral’s comments echoed remarks Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made last year after Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates while rescuing the kidnapped American ship captain of the Maersk-Alabama cargo ship.

Gates, emphasizing the limitations of a purely military approach to piracy, said some officials have suggested bypassing the central government of Somalia and instead establishing relationships with officials of functioning local governments there.

“There is no purely military solution to it,” the secretary told the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va., last year. “And as long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

But in the near-term, Fitzgerald said yesterday, it is “incumbent upon the vessels who are sailing the high seas to either protect themselves or accept the dangers.”

Asked if he would recommend that commercial ships arm themselves, Fitzgerald said: “I think they should.”

“Commercial ships should take appropriate protections,” he added, “because we cannot offer 100-percent guarantees of protection as the ships go through.”

Fitzgerald also recommended tracking the spoils of successful piracy operations. “I think we'd be able to trace the financiers [and] the middlemen,” he said.

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